Like any form of exhibition, parades are an expression of identity and agenda on the part of the people putting them on.
The political and religious calendar in ancient Athens, for instance, was full of processions and parades. The Panathenaia, a multi-day festival in honor of the patron deity of the city, was the crowning event. Its schedule was constrained by tradition, meaning of course that it changed over time: athletic games, poetic competitions, and a procession that invited the goddess back into the city.
Four citizen girls led the procession, carrying the peplos, the ceremonial garment for the goddess. Behind them came the priestesses and women, then the sacrificial animals, musicians, soldiers and finally ordinary citizens.
At another festival in fifth-century Athens, the Dionysia, part of the festivities included a pompe, that is a parade of the actors and sponsors of the festival and a proagon (a pre-festival procession) that included war orphans, the children of men killed in battle during the war.
Each procession differed in form and composition, but they all served to construct community by delineating who was allowed to participate and who could only watch.
Each procession also projected a martial undercurrent.
Such an inspiration it would have been see, Agesilaus in the lead and then the other soldiers coming from the gymnasium, garlanded, and the garlands having been dedicated to Artemis.Xenophon, Agesilaus 1.27
ἐπερρώσθη δ᾽ ἄν κἀκεῖνο ἰδῶν, Ἀγησίλαον μὲν πρῶτον, ἔπειτα δὲ καὶ τοὺς ἄλλους στρατιώτας ἐστεφανωμένους τε ὅπου ἀπὸ γυμνασίων ἴοιεν, καὶ ἀνατιθέντας τοὺς στεφάνους τῇ Ἀρτέμιδι.
Although the Athenian processions are the most famous in the ancient world, they are the norm rather than the exception in the Greek world. The fourth-century took spectacles to a new level. During his campaign in Asia Minor, the Spartan king Agesilaus leading his soldiers in a garlanded procession to the temple of Artemis at Ephesus––a procession emulated by Alexander the Great some sixty years later. Both displays came in moments of nominal liberations, so both kings used them to demonstrate that it was through their force of arms that the Greeks would defeat the Persians.
[Alexander] himself remained in Ephesus where he made offerings to Artemis and ordered a pompe with his soldiers fully armed and arrayed for battle.
αὐτὸς δὲ ὑπομείνας ἐν Ἐφέσῳ θυσίαν τε ἔθυσε τῇ Ἀρτέμιδι καὶ πομπῆν ἔπεμψε ξὺν τῆ στρατιᾷ πάσῃ ὡπλισμένῃ τε καὶ ὡς ἐς μάχην ξυντεταγμένῃ.Arrian, Anabasis 1.18.2
Kings such as Ptolemy II expanded the spectacle still further in the Hellenistic period. Athenaeus’ Deipnosophistae (Learned Banqueteers) preserves a lengthy description of Ptolemy’s pompe written by the contemporary historian Callixenus of Rhodes. The procession included a menagerie of animals and what we might call floats, with personifications of imperial territories and divinities designed to demonstrate the king’s wealth, power, and largesse. Much like subsequent pompes, this procession also included soldiers.
After all of that a units of cavalry and infantry paraded by, all fully and spectacularly equipped. The foot numbered 57,200, the horse 23,200. All of these marched in formation, each draped with a stole and carrying their appropriate weapons and armor.
ἐπὶ δὲ πᾶσιν ἐπόμπευσαν αἱ δυνάμεις αἱ ἱππικαὶ καὶ πεζικαὶ, πᾶσαι καθωπλισμέναι θαυμασίως. πεζοὶ μὲν πέντε μυριάδας καὶ ἑπτακισχιλίους καὶ ἑξακοσίους, ἱππεῖς δὲ δισμύριοι τρισχίλιοι διακίσιοι. πάντες δ᾽ οὗτοι ἐπόμπευσαν τὴν ἁρμόζουσαν ἑκάστῳ ἠμφιεσμένοι στολὴν καὶ τὰς προσηκούσας ἔχοντες πανοπλίας.Athenaeus, Deipnosophistae 5.35
Then there were victory parades. The Roman Senate awarded generals Triumphs for military victories. This was the only time generals could legally bring their soldiers into the city, where they marched through Rome displaying captives and booty. Josephus, a captive witness to the triumph that followed end of the Jewish revolt of the 60s CE, wrote that he was without device (ἀμήχανον) to adequately describe the spectacle.
Then [Vespasian] returned to the gates out of which they always dispatch the Triumphs, from which it gets its name. From there…they launched the triumph, marching it through the theaters so that they might be more easily seen by the masses.
πρὸς δὲ τὴν πύλην αὐτὸς ἀνεχώρει τὴν ἀπὸ τοῦ πέμπεσθαι δι᾽ αὐτῆς αἰεὶ τοὺς θριάμβους τῆς προσηγορίας ἀπ᾽ αὐτῶν τετυχυῖαν. ἐνταῦθα…ἔπεμπον τὸν θρίαμβον διὰ τῶν θεάτρων διεξελαύνοντες, ὅπως εἴη τοῖς πλήθεσιν ἡ θέα ῥᾴων.Josephus, BJ 7.129–32
Compared to the Athenian festivals, the Hellenistic pompe and Roman Triumph were more explicitly military celebrations, but they too were expressions of identity. Hellenistic monarchies legitimized themselves as rulers of spear-won territory in the shadow of Alexander the Great and by the time of Vespasian triumphs marked the restoration of the Roman peace as much as they did new conquests.
The same is true of American victory parades, from the one marking the end of the Civil War and the reunification of the country through force of arms to the ones at the close of both World War One and World War Two, a war to end all wars and a war for global freedom, respectively.
President Trump has wanted a military revue since he took office. On July 4, 2019 he got one in “Salute to America,” an event inspired by the military parade he attended for Bastille Day in France.
The French Bastille Day (fête nationale) commemorates the storming of the Bastille by revolutionary militias on July 14, 1789, a symbolic triumph of the people over royal oppression. The history of both the storming of the Bastille and of the national festival is, of course, more complicated than the memory; the Bastille only held seven prisoners at the time and there was a temporary reconciliation with the king in the immediate aftermath. Preliminary plans for a national festival in honor of the republic were formed that same year. In memory, though the storming of the Bastille is a military victory and since the passage of a law in 1880, the celebration has included a triumph on behalf of the French citizens in remembrance of those who shed blood for French unity.
American independence day, by contrast, is neither a triumph nor a pompe. The United States does not measure its freedom from Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown on October 17, 1781 or the first blood at Concord and Lexington on April 19, 1775, but from July 4, 1776 when delegates from the thirteen colonies signed a document declaring that they held “these truths to be self evident, that all Men are endowed by their creator to be equal.”
Defenders of “Salute to America” call it harmless or imply that the only way to be patriotic is to celebrate the military. It may be true that young people will be interested in the military technology––I know I am drawn to collections of weapons in museums and remain fascinated by military history––but I am also uncomfortable with overt martial displays masquerading as patriotism.
Modern America has altogether too many of these displays already.
For a lot of Americans the July 4 holiday is an opportunity to wear star spangled bathing suits, grill out, and shoot off fireworks. Others ask whether the United States is a country that ought to be celebrated. In truth, it is sometimes hard to point out individual things past or present (other than the US National Soccer Team, which just won the Women’s World Cup) that warrant celebration because anything positive is subsumed by a wave of individual, institutional, and cultural sins.
But for all that, I like July 4. Not the ambient American jingoism that can accompany the holiday or the fireworks that fill the streets this time of year (give me functional fires, thanks), but because of the aspirational enlightenment ideals it nominally commemorates.
Beyond the obvious parallels between “Salute to America” and military parades in North Korea or Russia, this is why holding it on July 4 is particularly toxic. At a time when individual rights are being rolled back across the country and thousands of people are being detained in camps, “Salute to America” reduced the celebration to warlike display, as if to say that this defines what America is and aspires to be.
Cold hard stares on faces so proudPhil Ochs, “One More Parade”
Kisses from the girls and cheers from the crowd
And the widows from the last war cry into their shrouds
Here comes the big parade
Don’t be afraid, price is paid
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